Material Grace

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Philippians 4: 14
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Matthew 25:1-13

Preface

Let those refuse to sing, who never knew our God. But children of the heavenly King must speak our joys abroad!

This fall we have traced through the etched, earnest marrow of Paul’s last, best letter, the Epistle to the Philippians. The letter acclaims our actual identity: your commonwealth is in heaven. Philippians is Paul’s loveliest letter. We interpret it along America’s loveliest avenue, Commonwealth Avenue, Boston.

It is kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving except you; for even in Thessalonica you sent me help once and again. Not that I seek the gift. But I seek the fruit which increases to your credit. I have received full payment and more. I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

You only have what you give away. You only truly possess what you have the freedom and power to give to another.

Stroll today on Commonwealth Avenue, you whose commonwealth is heaven. At Arlington—does this surprise you?—look up at Alexander Hamilton. There is discussion this week about a Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was our first. Born in the West Indies, educated in New Jersey and at Columbia, felled in the end in his duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton labored in the service of material grace, or at least of one version of material grace. He first sought to establish the credit of the young nation (see how contemporary history can be!), by paying all the nation’s debts in full. As my friend said about leadership and development, ‘you have to give people a reason to trust you’. Then he funded the new government with taxes on imports, and taxes on whisky. The latter landed him in something of a mess, known as the Whisky Rebellion. Against Jefferson, he argued for a mint, a national bank, and a strong central government. His was a singular voice in our Constitutional Convention, supporting the form of government we now enjoy. (As an aside: In the forests of upstate New York a college was named for him, he its first Trustee. Hamilton College (1793) regularly required four years of public speaking education for every graduate, speaking of material grace).

At the opening of the Commonwealth Mall and at the heart of the letter to the Philippians there stands, in timeless symbol, a respect for material grace. Christianity acclaims an incarnate faith, one that takes place and takes its place on the street where you live. We are learning again that when grace abounds, grace enshrouds the material world. Come Sunday, in resurrection spirit, we steadily announce a material grace.

Paul and Material Grace

Paul’s triumphant letter to the Philippians may be read as a thank you note.

This may puzzle us given the majestic poetry of the letter. When we think of Philippians, we think of the trumpet voluntary of its last chapter, ‘Rejoice…!’ Our mind, turning to Philippians, turns to Paul’s self-disclosure, and self-abandon, counting all his achievements as ‘rubbish’. This is the mountain top letter, in which Paul gave all time and our time the great hymn to Christ’s humility, ‘taking the form of a servant’. In Philippians we find enshrined the definitions of excellence—truth, honor, justice, purity, love, grace, praise. Here is the peace of God which passes all understanding.

Yet the letter serves a purpose, a very practical purpose as well. As has long been noted, Paul is expressing gratitude in this letter for some gift, perhaps some monetary gift, which the congregation has sent him. The gift has touched and inspired him, as any real gift really does. There is a magic art in gifts, when they truly match the moment and the recipient.

The other day our daughter in law and son moved into a new residence, a brownstone flat, in the city of Albany. We had the wisdom to call on them after their belongings had been moved, moved by a volunteer crew of friends and church members.

With them we celebrated the transition, admired the new space, enjoyed the historic neighborhood, and imagined future life for a young couple in a charming city. But on the back porch, over refreshment that evening, our son expressed his sense of the day: “what makes me happiest about all this is that our friends were willing to come and help us move—what a gift!”

A gift colors space with a new hue of grace. Something spatial and physical changed in Paul’s prison cell with the arrival of Epaphroditus, and of the Philippian gift.

Paul was not surprised. His practice, over decades, was to make his own living as a leather worker, a tent-maker, in the cities of the Roman Empire to which he traveled. He regularly admonishes his congregations that they are to support their leaders, their spiritual teachers, verses that are clerical favorites for preachers to this day. Clergy know them by heart, and sing them in the shower. Yet, for his own part, Paul took nothing for his missionary work, in order not to burden his fledgling flock. In addition, through much of his recorded work, we know he is raising money in another direction, his major work of collecting support for the Jerusalem congregation. We can date many of his letters with reference to his work on the collection. Philippians shows no evidence of the Jerusalem collection, so it may perhaps be a later, and even the latest, of Paul’s known works. With the Philippians, things were different. Paul did accept their gifts, early and late. Somehow, they found a way to give, and he a way to receive, that was not typical of his relationships.

Friendship is found in such gifts. For all the difficulties which beset Paul in his work of building the primitive church, here, in Philippians, here, in prison, we see Paul enjoying the rare delicacy of friendship, known in a gift. He writes the letter as a bread and butter note.

As a New Testament scholar and teacher, of course, I have a vested interest in seeing spiritual or theological insight embedded in the quotidian utmost. It was in the development of church life that the sayings and doings of Jesus were remembered and rehearsed. It was in the occasional needs of the churches that the biblical letters were called to life. It was in the dire conflict between Christian Judaism and Jewish Christianity that the theological essays of the newer Testament were forged. It was in the later construction of church leadership, pastoral care, service to the poor, and relation to culture that the pseudonymous writings were composed. But even so, here at the end of Philippians, without any special scholarly or pedagogical pleading, we can see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Paul’s thank you note becomes his Hallelujah Chorus.

You may not have any particular need of a sermon about material grace. Your financial affairs may be all of a piece, all in order. You may live in a country that long ago paid off its debts and deficits and built a trillion dollar endowment for the future. If so, listen to the rest of this sermon as if you did, or with the recognition that some day you may.

Paul teases out some fascinating advice about money, here. We know he is deadly serious, because he pulls his favorite iron from the bag to
swing at the outset. Koinonia. ‘Kind of you to share’—a weak translation to be sure. ‘Truly generous of you to enter my soul in fellowship’—a little closer. He reflects, with some nostalgia, on their earlier creativity, during a time Paul identifies as the ‘beginning of the gospel’. Here the gospel is not faith speaking to faith, but is a time and a place and a friendship. Again Paul uses the favorite eight iron, when he could as well have chosen another instrument. Koinonia. No other church entered into koinonia, at least this kind of koinonia, this kind of partnership with me. You did, in giving and receiving. This recognition and remembrance pulls Paul farther along, and us with him. He needs nothing—‘I do not seek the gift’. He knows how to be abased and how to abound. Yet he sees something else in the giving. There is fruit in giving. There is fruit—love, joy, peace, and so on.

Giving, the encouragement of generosity, is for the benefit of the giver. Paul reminds us of this. Again, he relies on God to supply every need, is full to overflowing, needs nothing further, holds onto the riches of glory (itself a pregnant phrase). It is the Philippians who benefit, to whom increase of credit accrues.

A non-fundamentalist, unselfish non-moribund expression of responsible Christian liberalism has everything to do with the use of money. The founder of Methodism said of money: get all you can, save all you can, give all you can (not borrow all you can, spend all you can, take all you can).

Along with worshipful use of time, and earnest faithfulness in partnership, tithing, disciplined generosity, is the threshold of faith, the beginning of real faith.

The deepest part of Paul’s teaching about money is found in 2 Corinthians. There, particularly in chapter 8, Paul offers us his heart and mind on money. The very phrases he selects, even apart from their composition in argument, are compelling, to this day:

A wealth of liberality
Jesus though rich became poor
According to what a man has, not according to what he has not
As a matter of equality your abundance should supply their want
Who sows sparingly, reaps sparingly, who sows bountifully reaps bountifully
Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion
God loves a cheerful giver
So that…
One who has much has not too much, one who has little has not too little

Experience of Material Grace

The happiest side of ministry—by complete surprise—over thirty years, has come in admiration of generosity, the material grace of gracious people, including you and you all present today.

We began one capital campaign in the fall of 1987. Timing is everything. Another started in the fall of 2002. Timing is everything. In a way, the struggles made them both all the sweeter.

Mike Mckee, my friend, said as he left our home in January 2003: “Bob, one thing about this work: enjoy it. You are going to have some real fun.” He was right.

By Christmas of 2003, we had raised $1M in pledges. By May of 2004, $2M. By Christmas of 2004, $3M. And so on…

I have chuckled and laughed and felt tears all along the way.

The first gift of $500 came from the most veteran of our Tuesday AM men’s group. It made me smile.

We asked many people to join us at the leadership level ($50,000). Many did. It makes me smile.

One woman came to say, “I can only give $5 a week more—will that make a difference?” Together we did the math, over 5 years. It does make a difference. It made me smile.

Out of blue, a couple made a large deferred gift, 6 figures and more. It made me pause, offer a little thanks prayer, and it made me smile.

A retired preacher called up to say, briefly and bluntly, that he was surpassing the $50,000 level in giving. Just wanted me to know. It made me smile after it made me emotional. Then he left a tongue in cheek message asking why the stock market went down after he made his gift. He thought he was assured of prosperity! That really made me smile.

I remember pulling many pounds of silver out from under a bed, to get it ready for sale, and a significant pledge. We all smiled at that.

Several times we came away from homes of newer members, who had made really strong pledges, and there was a silence, a full silence, a happy, full silence in the car. It does make you smile.

One refusal letter was so well worded, and so caring, and so on the edge of commitment, that it made me want to smile, too.

There was a family together who made an unexpected and strong named gift. The way they planned and prepared it made me really smile.

We had a couple in the office, who had to bring their teenager along, due to other commitments. I watched her watch her parents—such truly good people—filling in the pledge card. I wondered what her 15 year old mind made of all this. I found myself smiling on the way home that night.

The other night I sat with one of our Trustees. She said something that I want you all to hear and remember and cherish: “You know, if you didn’t raise another dime, you have done wonderfully! Already, at $3.3M, you have done beautifully.” What a gracious thing to say. She said it smiling.

Of all the Easter signs of Christ, raised, other perhaps than the preaching of the Gospel itself, I do not think of any others that more majestically announce Life in a world of death than these moments of sheer generosity. Here is a material grace. This is the sense, the feeling—far more than emotion by the way—which Paul knew in his prison cell. I am filled, having received the gifts you sent…

To whom much has been given, from him much is required.

The Power of Material Grace

Some years ago I officiated at a wedding. It was beautiful autumn day as so many have been this year. The service was wonderful. The organist played a version of “Love Divine” with bells that rounded off the service to perfection. I was proud to be here. Later, in the ready room, a woman who had attended the service asked about my family.

We talked, and I discovered that she was from the North Country, and had been raised with some difficulty by a single mother.

“Near Alexandria Bay?”

“In Alexandria Bay.”

“Did you know Rev. Pennock, who was there in retirement?” (who is Jan’s grandfather)?

All of sudden her face became red and her eyes filled. I wondered what I had said to upset her. This is the “joy” of the ministry – you enter a room and everyone is uncomfortable! You make small talk and women cry!

“No”, she said, “you don’t understand…When I was a young woman, I barely could go to college. Every semester I received a check from the Alexandria Bay Church, money that was to pay for my voice lessons…This kept me going in college, not just the money, which was significant, but more so the thought, the fact that somebody believed in me, could see me with a future, outside of my struggling family and small town, and invested in me….”

What does that have to do with me?

“I learned a few years ago that your wife’s grandfather is the one who gave the money for those lessons! His gift formed my life!”

What are you doing today?

“I am the Director of Music for a church near Albany. The bride grew up in my youth choir. She invited me to the wedding. Music is my life.”

Over all those years, and so many miles, across such a great existential distance, look what happened: A moment of material grace. I was given an experience of God, emotion laded and heartfelt and real and good, and even in church or at least almost, as a consequence of a gift made long ago and far away. The hidden blessing of gen
erosity is that giving opens the world to the possibility of experiences of God. Rev. Harold Pennock is long dead. His wife Anstress is long dead. Their time in the parsonage of a small town on the St Lawrence River is long gone. But one autumn day, many years later, after a wedding, in the late afternoon, his thoughtful kindness opened the world.

The Radiance of Material Grace

There is a radiance that comes shining through a material grace.

I see this radiance in generosity well invested. Recently we visited a newborn baby. The plaque on the hospital wall read, ‘This hospital was built and endowed by the people of this city’. Built and endowed. I wish every church we had built we had also fully endowed, and every college, and every seminary, and every hospital.

I see this radiance in young people who are eager to endow, with material grace, the world which that new born child enters. To endow it with clean air and water. To endow it with stable justice. To endow it with colorblind equality. To endow it with a rigorous preparation for peace. To endow it with virtue which has place neither for selfishness nor for sloth. To endow it with the wisdom of a Lincoln, on whose lap we all would sit this week. To endow it with a heartfelt trust that there is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.

I see this radiance today. Paul in prison and Hamilton on Arlington would agree. Lord grant us a material grace, a grateful generosity.

I see this radiance out in front of our chapel this morning. Outside Marsh Chapel there is a materially gracious monument to Martin Luther King. On Wednesday of this week, following lunch, my colleague and I passed the front of the King memorial. In front were bunches of flowers. Beautiful bouquets of flowers. More appeared on Thursday, and more still on Friday. Only one carried a note. To Martin Luther King: thank you.

We close with a prayer King used in 1959, citing a slave preacher (related in a NYTimes column, 11/6/08): ‘Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we oughta be; we ain’t what we gonna be; but thank God, we ain’t what we was’.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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